The Good Shepherds

It wasn’t until the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia that Nana Firman realized how religion can help spur environmental change. The disaster prompted her to join the World Wildlife Fund in Aceh, a region devastated by the tsunami. She thought she’d go for a few months, but ended up staying four years, providing environmental direction to the post-tsunami reconstruction.

Firman, who is Muslim, says she was having a hard time convincing locals of the value of sustainability in recovery efforts. Then someone suggested she turn to her faith.

Larry Conboy / Creative Commons

“I went back to the scripture, to the Quran, to the prophetic tradition, and I found a lot about environmental messages, so I used them to communicate with people,” Firman, who is from Indonesia and now lives in California, told Ms. “And somehow they understood. Suddenly they said yes, we will support this program.”

Since then, Islamic teachings have guided much of Firman’s environmental work—including in her current role as Muslim outreach director at GreenFaith, an interfaith coalition for the environment based in New Jersey.

From Catholic nuns in New Jersey calling on corporations to be environmentally responsible to Congresswoman Jacky Rosen installing a solar energy project at her Nevada synagogue, Firman is among the many women and women-led groups in the U.S. using religious teachings and institutions to push for environmental change, Amidst concerns over the Trump administration’s impact on the environment, this grassroots faith-based activism—sometimes called “creation care”—is increasing the use of renewables and accelerating the shift of our energy system to one that’s cleaner and less dependent on fossil fuels.

“Many religious communities are pushing for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energies,” says Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. “Religious communities have the moral force to say why the move from fossil fuels to renewable energies is a vital way forward for the flourishing of the Earth community—planet and people.”

Most religious groups have released statements on climate change. Andwhile the link between religion and environment is not new, Tuckers says the faith community’s role in environmental causes like renewable energy is increasing.

Using religion to promote renewables and other green efforts makes sense, says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who lectures on climate change and faith. “The way to spur long-term action is not to try to install new values into people they didn’t already have,” she says. “It’s to connect the issues to the values they already have… I don’t think there’s a single major world religion that doesn’t have some aspect of stewardship… as part of its core beliefs.”

One group that has made this connection and is growing is Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), which was founded by Rev. Sally Bingham and is “mobilizing a religious response to global warming,” including renewable energy work. The organization launched in 2000 in California; it’s now in around 40 states and includes over 18,000 congregations.

In West Virginia, Robin Blakeman, a Presbyterian minister, has spent more than two years setting up an IPL affiliate. Blakeman, who’s also project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), says they will use a seed grant to jumpstart their IPL work and start doing outreach to local churches. Faith institutions and churches, she adds, are one of the main ways communities organize themselves in West Virginia and Central Appalachia.

“We are in a spiritual battle to figure out what the fate of our species and the Earth is going to be,” Blakeman says. “So I think faith community involvement is really important in terms of making any headway.”

One way for faith institutions to do this, says Firman, is to be models for their communities. Besides her work at GreenFaith, Firman is also a member of the Islamic Society of North America’s Green Mosque Initiative and co-founder of Global Muslim Climate Network. Through this work she’s realized a two-prong approach that includes training religious leaders and ensuring worshippers see actual solar panels on mosques—“I call it software and hardware,” she laughs—can be effective in shifting awareness of renewables into action.

This work may be even more pressing now, given that Trump has signed an executive order rolling back most of Barack Obama’s climate change legacy, including the Clean Power Plan. But Stephanie Johnson, an ordained Episcopal priest who is the convener of the New England Regional Environmental Ministries Network, says whatever the U.S. administration, the faith community can help maintain the momentum on renewables and environmental concerns.

“We have to continue moving forward in our communities of faith and our local communities,” Johnson told Ms., “showing signs of hope and possibility. That’s what churches can be: sources of inspiration and new life and possibilities when sometimes people are not feeling that in the world around them.”

This post is part of a series of Ms. reports on the blog and in print that look at the organizing models of some of the women-led groups helping to build a sustainable grassroots movement to boost renewables and combat climate changes. This effort has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. 



Juhie Bhatia is a journalist focused on gender and health issues. Formerly the managing editor of Women’s eNews, she’s also written for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Nature Medicine and Bust magazine, among others.